Of all Charlotte Bronte's novels, my favourite, but the one that disturbs me most, is Villette. I reread it again a couple of years ago, and it is so assured, but so very hard to read, because it portrays such a lonely, self-sufficient, oppressed central character. Lucy Snowe eludes until the last page, when Bronte gives us that terribly opaque ending.
Villette is the fictional name for Brussels, where part of the Hour of Separation is set. Architecturally, Brussels is a strange place because its streets have been re-planned many times, and the Pensionnat where Bronte studied and fell in love is now disappeared altogether... except, you can find the ghost of it in the old town. And you can follow in Bronte's footsteps, visiting the churches she describes, and the Parc de Bruxelles. All these places figure in my book.
But Bronte doesn't. At least, not unless you spot that one of the characters reading Villette, and you have a nose for literary themes. Because Bronte is definitely there. The novel is about hidden and forbidden love. It is about being a stranger, and being lonely, and not understanding a culture. It is about wanting to belong and not knowing how to. And it is about undercurrents, some of them understood better by the reader than by the characters themselves.
Right at the end of her recent biography of Bronte, Claire Harman, suggests that M. Heger, Bronte's great love, may not have been quite innocent in how he nurtured and encouraged the young women in his care. She suggests that he might positively have relished writing and receiving letters filled with hardly concealed love and admiration. She quotes a letter he wrote to another young student after she'd left his care, and how he imagined she was still with him. Strong stuff for an infatuated girl.
As a novelist, visiting a place, I am always seeing it through at least two lenses. One of the lenses through which I looked at Brussels, was through Villette. And one way or another, as little more than a whisper, Bronte has crept in.